Researcher: Salamanders are important to environment

Brian Gratwicke,of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, holds a hellbender salamander in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Appalachia is a special part of the world to Brian Gratwicke, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Species Survival.

The region is home to a unique species of salamanders that Gratwicke said are “not found anywhere else in the world.”

Based out of the Washington National Zoological Park, Gratwicke has been researching amphibian conservation for the past six years.

Outside of the inherent uniqueness, another reason why salamanders are of interest to Gratwicke and Smithsonian researchers is that their populations are at risk. Southern Appalachian salamanders are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species.

“It’s hard to say what sort of impact extinct salamanders might have,” Gratwicke said, adding that estimating the total population of salamanders is difficult due to the fact that some species live underground and only surface at night or when it rains.

However, because salamanders are in the middle of the food chain, Gratwicke noted that the loss of salamanders would impact the local environment — essentially, they are helping to fight climate change.

Because they eat insects that cause wood decay, Gratwicke explained, “If you take the salamanders out [of the ecosystem], the wood decays so much faster and the Co2 would get released back into the atmosphere.”

One of the largest emerging threats to salamanders is a new skin-eating fungus pathogen called batrachochytrium salamandrivorans — more commonly known as Bs for short.

This chytrid fungus is a non-native pathogen that has already wreaked havoc in other countries such as the Netherlands.

Gratwicke cited research conducted in the Netherlands that tested the susceptibility of this pathogen on North American salamanders, such as the red-spotted newt of New Hampshire.

He said the red-spotted newts were not only 100 percent susceptible to this pathogen, but also died very quickly after being exposed.

Gratwicke said that the disease is similar to a chytrid fungus that he and a team of researchers analyzed in connection with Panamanian frogs.

“What we learned in Panama is that these pathogens can be really devastating to local amphibians populations,” Gratwicke said.

One way for it to enter the country, Gratwicke said, is through Asian newts. These newts are commonly imported for use as pets.

If the pathogen were to enter the United States — and specifically the Appalachian region — Gratwicke said that it could spread like a wildfire. He noted that prevention would be much better than a cure.

Climate change is another major concern for the salamanders because they need a cool, moist climate in order to survive. Gratwicke said certain salamander species live in small sections of the region, on mountaintops that that are referred to as “sky islands.”

When a process such as climate change occurs, the solution for these creatures is to migrate to a higher area of elevation.

“If that area around them is heating up, then they have nowhere to go,” Gratwicke said, adding that part of the problem with climate change is that more research on its potential impact is needed.

“Right now, we have not actually found a lot of conclusive, alarming evidence to make a call one way or another,” he said.

One method that many research facilities employ for population crises is in-captivity breeding.

In Panama, Gratwicke noted that he and his team “worked … [to] create secure breeding containers to keep the [chytrid] fungus out.”

These captivity-breeding methods are used to give the frogs a “leg up” on problems like invasive pathogens and ensure the survival of that particular amphibious species.

However, unlike the research in Panama, Gratwicke said, “Our ability to create salamander arks is very limited [in the United States] … due to a lack of space and resources.”

Gratwicke said captivity breeding should be “a last resort … you never want to be forced to take an animal into captivity.”

In the Zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center, Gratwicke said that they have an Appalachian salamander lab set up that doubles as an exhibit people can visit.

He said the lab exhibit represents a chance to “try and connect people with the research we are doing.”

Without the local salamander, Gratwicke said, Appalachia would not be the same anymore. “It would not be a special place.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com